Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hearing Voices Again

One of your earliest awarenesses of voice as a primary tool in storytelling came from a source you've long since considered your third university. This source was an icon of your growing-up years, reminding the octogenarian you of the teen-aged you with a haunting persistence. 


Even though a principal source of your income came from working as a page at a public library, you'd begun to nourish the possibility of a library of your own, the titles arranced according to the universal classification system known as the Dewey Decimal System.

With small, self-adhesive tabs affixed to the spines, the titles in your library were dutifully given their appropriate identity numbers. Absent enough shelves to accommodate all your books, many of your titles were arranged at floor level against wall space not occupied by bed or chair or desk. 

The notion of a library of your own came one afternoon in a branch of your third university, a used-book bookstore, a musty, delightful collection of titles you were not likely to find at the commodious and well-stocked main branch of the Beverly Hills Library, where you worked.

The voice of which you speak belonged then and, as such things go, still belongs to Samuel Langhorn Clemens, known by the pseudonym of Mark Twain. At twenty-five cents a copy, his books, in the red, buckram binding, were finding their way to your room and into the orfices and sensory apparatus available to a word-hungry teenager.  

Beyond the memorable openings of two of your favorite of his novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there was a saying of his, a much-quoted aphorism, that caused you gales of laughter when you first heard it, then made you vow that some day, you would write something as accurate of the human condition and at the same time funny. Thus your lifelong association with Twain, his novels, his short tales, and This observation:"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Even though the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA represented to you an equivalent of the Taj Mahal and in fact caused you to begin arranging your books according to the Library of Congress cataloging system, you continued your path of self-education at used-book stores at some remove from your normal habits, including the monumental Acres of Books in Long Beach and, in later years, the sprawling wonder of Bart's Books in Ojai.

You of course heard the siren call of Ernest Hemingway's voice when you began working your way through his short stories and novels, followed in rapid succession by the works--especially the short stories--of John O'Hara, and then, thanks to used-book stores, the stories of Katherine Mansfield.

By this time, a passing remark from your sister, whom you adored--"If you're going to be a writer, then you're going to need to develop a style that lets people know it's you, doing the writing."--had taken hold of your reins and you were scribbling away in all directions in order to hear what you sounded like.

Having a writing instructor at UCLA who managed regular appearances in The New Yorker, as well as having had two titles published by Alfred Knopf, and a splendid exegesis of Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" published by the University of California Press, you felt even more certain a career in the worlds of your choice awaited you and that a voice would find you. This very instructor, John J. Espey, surprised you by suggesting you take one of the survey courses in literature you felt least inclined to take:  The Age of Pope and Dryden.

To this day, you find yourself asking, "What could a twenty-year-old with no academic ambitions and, indeed, a growing passion for the voices of Hammett and Chandler, hope to find in The Age of Pope and Dryden?"

One answer, suitable for both, Satire. 

The first assignment for the study of Pope sent you to the used bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard, where you found Pope's "Essay on Criticism," and a number of lines, first published in 1711, that spoke across the years to you:  "True ease in writing," Pope wrote, "comes from art, not chance/ As those move easiest who have learned to dance."

A man who could speak like that, within the constraints of the heroic couplet, and write a mock epic about someone snipping off a lock of a young lady's hair was, in the clearest possible terms, a man to be read--and heeded.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rocks and Narrative Voice

There was a recent time when you were awakened from a sound sleep, not sure if the waking noise were a gun shot or a car in back-fire mode.  The fact of your accelerated heart beat told you that whatever the sound, you heard it as a gun shot. Thus the nature of a perception in its willingness to jump to a conclusion.

When you lived on Calle Mesones in Mexico City, you were often awakened by the sound of explosions, but because you knew in advance you lived over a fire cracker factory, your sudden transition from sleep to wakefulness was accompanied only by noise, no accompanyment of peril.

Narrative voice has similar effects on you, runing the gamut of emotional responses including the response of you being delivered into gales of laughter or waves of sadness. One writer whose work you admire, Daniel Woodreell, is said by reviewers and critics to have invented his own genre, Ozark noir. With the exception of a few earlier works set in that diverse and mischievous area between Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, his novels are set in and about the Ozark Mountain area of Missouria, featuring the men, women, animals, and misplaced, battered codes of ethical behavior.

Woodrell's narrative voice has the effect of an unsilenced pistol being discharged in the hours between midnight and four or five in the morning, times when the odds favor the targets to be humans as opposed to such intruders as, say, snakes or rodents. Through his choice of words, his narrative cadence, and the way his sentences indicate some hard reality sitting outside in the carf with the motor running, Woodrell filters hope through his characters in ways that suggest hope is something best not entertained, even during the Christmas season.

You are drawn to Woodrell and other writers whose work could be described as noir for reasons associated with your political beliefs rather than your own balance sheet with achievements and social stratification. your own personal history shows a past in which you were not notably abused, ignored, or discriminated against to any extreme degree. You in fact got pretty much what you earned. To put it another way, you're hard put to recall significantg events where you were denied the fruits of your efforts.

Nevertheless, you are drawn to the narrative where an interesting character finds him- or herself in the dramatic equivalent of a rigged game, even if that walled-in feeling comes as a direct consequence of his or her own maneuvering within the social framework. You began to notice what you now think of as noir aspects and settings in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray, becoming even more weighted against lead characters as the nineteenth century ran down. and writers such as Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells began to publish.

If ever the rhetorical invitation to writers to throw rocks at their characters, both Wells and Hardy would stand out as forerunners of the trend, reaching a high point, but by no means the apex, in Shirley Jackson's iconic story, "The Lottery," in 1948.  Authors still throw rocks at characters, and set them in circumstances where passing events are armed with a few choice missiles of their own.

The very sound of such dramatic interventions appeals to you, not from any possible sense of schadenfreude but rather from your growing observation that reality and dramatic incident overlap at those places where some arm, whether the synecdoche arm of the Law or of Fate are poised with a stone or two to cast or the arm of another person, an antagonist, can be seen, hefting a rock for a sense of how much damage it might inflict.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Side Effects and Digressions

You did not foresee some of the side effects and digressions about to spring forth when you began work on The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own. Nor could you expect the work is taking so long, in large measure because the digressions and side effects are having such a disrupting effect on you.

By its title, the work suggests a readership of writers, perhaps dedicated readers, perhaps teachers of creative writing, perhaps as a supplementary reading for some literary  critical thinking classrooms.  

Closer to the truth, the reason you wanted to write this book is for these side trips and digressions of which you speak; in other words, the real audience is you. The excitement and impatience bordering on irritation are because the work could not have come to you, and presented itself so strongly as it did, at a worse time.

Forget the fact that, although two publishers have been less than polite in their response to the work, there are two places at the moment where interest is high, or that your literary agent is also eager for you to finish to your satisfaction, then move on.

The reason this is the worst time is also, in keeping with your belief that nothing bad ever happens to a writer, the best time because you are at once eager and frightened about the prospect of the fiction project you have in mind. Once again, The One Hundred Novels You Must Read caused you to link two writers you greatly admire, writers who, on first blush, seem almost antithetical to one another.

The two writers, and more to the point, their books, are William Faulkner, whose Absalom, Absalom is a whirlwind of narrative energy and complexity, reminiscent of James Joyce's Ulysses, playing with narrative as though it were information received from afar in the same way light from some distant stars is reaching us even after the star, itself, has died; and the Latin American writer, Manuel Puig, whose two novels, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, and Heartbreak Tango use narrative as though it were a shuttlecock in a game of badminton.

Reexamining Puig's work for inclusion in The Hundred Novels got you to thinking of how Faulkner, in his preoccupation with the effects of the past on present lives, stretched narrative to the point where, in Absalom, Absalom, in the early pages, a character recounts events which she says she'd seen. Then Faulkner replays the events from others who were there, trying to make sense of the past and the potential it has for tinting our vision of it.

Seen from the perspective of use of narrative, which is, in your terms,  an attempt to interpret past events before linking them to present day motives, you are able to state without equivocation that both Faulkner and Puig are writing detective novels in which the reader finds him/herself cast in the role of a private detective (as opposed to a sworn officer of the law), looking for some sense of truth as compensation, representing most of us, who do not consider themselves such great fans of sworn officers of the law.

In at least one way, this could all be oversimplification of the sort of oversimplification inherent in the statement: A successful university education educates you to understand you can never achieve sufficient education, only sufficient curiosity.  By those terms, worst case scenario from those hundred novels of the eponymous title is the relationships you continue to experience between what you read, what you take from your reading, what you write, and which questions your writing answer that cause you to have yet newer questions.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Hearing Voices Other Than Your Own: Literal or Figurative Madness

In most cases after a play has been cast, the actors meet with the director in a session referred to as a table reading, where the director informs his cast of his vision, and where blocking,one of the many important aspects of the production, is developed.  At its most simplistic reach, blocking is a design for where each character will be at every moment he or she is on the stage.

Depending on the time available for rehearsal, subsequent "run-through" readings may continue for a few sessions before the actors begin moving about, interacting with one another as the script and direction demands. 

At this point, the director and writer are watching to see if there are any instances of unanticipated chemistry between characters, instances where two or more characters seem to "get along" or the antithetical "not get along" in a tangible way. This chemistry may well cause shifts in the blocking and send the writer back to the laptop for exchanges of dialogue that add dimension to the story by enhancing the attraction or distaste among the actors.

The story, at this time, is beginning to come off the page and into a sense of dimensional reality. One example of such dynamic stuck in your mind over the years since the original mounting and rehearsal of the dramatic musical Westside Story. You'd read in at least two accounts of how members of the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were getting into scuffles during breaks from the rehearsals, each group in a vivid sense embodying the fictional dislike for the other.

In subsequent years, you'd become aware of some directors asking prospective actors to improvise scenes, which would give the actors and the director an opportunity to see if that magic of chemistry was present.  

This had an immediate effect on the way you watched stage plays and filmed drama, causing you to look for such instances of chemistry, then see if you could define it on sight or by study.  Yes, this meant recorded versions of dramas were preferable, although you did learn from repeated watching of a live play, even if, in the long run, you did not like the play itself.

Looking at the way a drama is mounted as opposed to the way a story is written and then revised, you began to see the former as a way of reaching inside the narrative to get at its voice. From that, you began to see the latter as a way of using revision to remove from the narrative all but the ambient noises, and for a great certainty, any hint of the authorial presence.

The chemistry in both cases is the way a live, mobile narrative has a range of voices in which it wishes to speak; the director or the author has an option of choosing which of the potential voices to whom the actors or characters should listen. 

At the moment, you are at the midway point of a book you are eager to finish for the same reason you've been eager these last several years, to see where the project takes you in the voyage of learning. The current project, One Hundred Novels You Should Read before You Write Your Own, involves the principal of you listening to the voice you heard in one hundred formative novels you've read throughout your lifetime, all of them well more than once.

The project you have in mind next holds considerable fear for you; you've known the lead character since your teens, have even used him as a pseudonym on occasion, and have been aware of ways in which he resembles you and ways in which he has departed from you in order to become his own person.

The subtext of fear, underscoring your eagerness to get on with the novel, is the question of whether you will be able to hear his voice and distinguish it from your own.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Archimedes in the Bathtub

Your first encounter with D.H.Lawrence's memorable novel, Sons and Loverscame as the result of an intervention by one of the two individuals who were the secular versions of your most memorable university-days instructors, and a splendid cadre of other civilians who have to this day left valuable impressions on you.

Each of these two secular mentors was an owner of a used book store, one at the confluence of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in that splash of Los Angeles known as Hollywood, the other, smaller, a bit below Hollywood on Santa Monice Boulevard, between La Brea and Fairfax Avenues, on occasion redolent of a smell that may have been cat urine or, as you discovered in another context, years later, Southern Comfort whiskey.

It is of the Santa Monica store and Sons and Lovers you write.  You have no memory of the name of the bookstore or even if it had a name other than the sign rendered on the front window glass, Used Books Bought and Sold. You recall one time when, standing at the check-out counter and the telephone rang, he answered it with the gruff-but-emphatic, "Used books."

The owner bore a resemblance to a man you would come to know and hang out with some twenty years later, after you'd left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara. His head seemed chisled rather than formed, his mouse-gray hair erupted in ambitious cowlicks, which he accommodated by allowing to grow without regard for a neat effect.

The first few times you met the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, in Santa Barbara, he described your way of looking at him as of a man recognizing someone from his past who owes him money. It took a few more meetings with Rexroth to make the connection between his craggy face and that of the bookstore owner on Santa Monice Boulevard.

"For someone who wants to be a writer not to have read this at your age--" he shoved a serviceable if not fresh hardcover of Sons and Lovers across the counter, into your stack of John O'Hara and Dashiell Hammett, shaking his head to complete the drifting clause of disdain and disbelief.  "Here. You can pay me after you've read it."

You were eighteen; the price, penciled on the upper right corner of the title page, was seventy-five cents.

"You'll want to reread this over the years."

He was correct; each time you reread the novel, you became Archimedes in the bathtub over some new awareness. The first of these was Lawrence, himself, twenty-eight when this was published, giving you about ten years to catch up in technique and that glimmering awareness you had of story being about something more than an arrangement of events.

The second thing was how far he was ahead of me; ten years seemed light years away. Third, he switched point-of-view characters from Gertrude Morel to her son, Paul. Then, in no particular order, the Gertrude segment had become backstory, but the first two times through, you had no idea what backstory was, much less how to deal with it.

By your third reading, the weight and direction of the story made a beautiful sense, in particular since learning Lawrence had at first thought to call the novel Paul Morel before an editor showed him how effective Sons and Lovers was, not only as a title but as a theme.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hearing Voices

Words have voices. They are often tentative until they begin to resonate among the harmony of other words in sentences. By the time they reach paragraph length, words attract the attention of even the most dedicated cynic.

You listen for voices when you have taken yourself to a coffee shop to write at those times when you need extra concentration to blot out the ambient chatter of your own brain, in its replay mode. At such times, your brain broadcasts fragments of past conversations, snippets of thought, and descents into memories of past experiences.

If you hear the right voices, you will either eavesdrop on those, buoyed on the sound of their words, drawn into whatever meaning they might have, alert to implications and fresh connections.

But you go out precisely to hear the wrong voices, those of a scratchy or strident tone, forcing you to mount a firewall which will prevent you from hearing the inelegant janble of those spoken words. Then, you'll be able to heed the words trying to form in your own head, words pushing out the ambient clutter.

For years, ever since you realized voice was the most important element in your own composition and in the work of other writers you admire, you've understood how any story, however intricate and compelling, is undercut when it is told in a clangorous voice, a voice that is a tad too hesitant, a voice leaning on cuteness of effect, or a voice that sounds as though it thinks more highly of itself than it should.

Such observations lead you to rank voice at the top of all the relevant elements of the story triangle, for a certainty placing voice over plot, which is the strategic arrangement of incidents and events. In this fashion, you recognize how voice transforms the most simplistic of narratives into near poetic delivery and, conversely, weighs down the most elegant plot with the albatrosses of discord.

When used with finesse, voice becomes the attitude and emotional weight of the story you are reading or, it is to be hoped, the story you are writing. This observation reminds you countless times during the day, whether you at your desk in the act of composing or your chair in the act of reading: Listen to the words, pay attention to the sound of the narrative.

Voice can be the sound of the heartbeats of your characters, necessary presences to give your story or essay some sense of the stage presence of your characters and the time in which their drama is set. Voice can--and should--reflect the attitude of the world in which your characters live; it can also distinguish the difference between poetic justice (the voice of a given culture) and dramatic justice (the sound and presence of the penetrating light of story, peeling away artifice and propaganda.

On this matter, you will accept no propaganda: The truth of story is its tone, the fatalism, optimism, naivete, or cynicism of the outcome the writer has set in motion when the beginning landslide has begun its tumble down the hill. Voice is the difference between, "Look out!" and "Everything will be okay, it's only an invented catastrophe."  


Sunday, June 12, 2016

For After: A Study in Irony

Of the many tools humanity has developed over the years to assist us during our residency on this planet, the least mentioned and most used is not the can opener, the car jack, or even the Swiss Army knife. Rather, it is irony, that stunning resource for helping us stay somewhere within the boundaries of sanity. 

Thus this observation: craziness does not require irony to function. Craziness is its own world, where irony would be every bit as suspect as any other feature of reality. This results in the unlikely paring of irony and craziness as the bookends on either side of the voluminous records of our attempts to make our day-to-day way through Reality.

Writers chow down on irony, using it to help themselves and their readers see events as more than a mere, unthinking randomness, or part of a patterned mischief that speaks to the individual the way the Sirens spoke to Odysseus' sailors

Irony has to begin somewhere; it does so with coincidence, the kind often expressed with someone saying, "It was ironic that I chose to attend the theater that night." 

Had he lived through going to the theater that night, Abraham Lincoln might well have thought it an irony to have attended the theater the same night John Wilkes Booth thought to attend. Booth, for his part in the matter, would have expressed disappointment to have missed Lincoln.

Coincidence colludes with irony, the product arriving when one makes a choice, which turns out to coincide with an opposing outcome. We say the choice was ironic in retrospect. Some choices bring about desired and bountiful results, others allow the luxury of thinking we'd been selected by some malevolent universal force for making the wrong choice. 

The irony is that there are neither good choices not bad choices, only choices. Some choices have outcomes that produce irony; other choices produce lackluster results such as disappointment, boredom or, in some circumstances, pleasure. But how many of those do we remember?

This is no idle observation. After six years of teaching a course in memoir writing, you note how the most memorable aspects of published accounts are those in which there appears always to be the uninvited guest of Irony, or at least a chair and table setting for It, like the place reserved at every Passover Seder for the prophet, Elijah.

Irony also invites the accompaniment of opposites. The same, admirable Abraham Lincoln might well have said of his decision to attend the theater that night, "I wouldn't have gone, had I known he'd be there."  

In that same vein, irony pairs up with sarcasm when one individual says the opposite of what he or she intends, all the while believing some of us will see the inherent irony.  "I couldn't be happier to go," as a substitute for, "The mere thought of going sickens me."  

If there were no irony in our narratives, you argue, the result of these narratives would be sagas, folktales, morals, sermons, even fables. But not story.  Irony is as vital to story as plot is vital to drama. Irony is dramatic expectation, then its fulfillment or frustration:

A man lay within the rumpled sheets of his deathbed, his hallucinations and reflections interrupted by a familiar and favored smell, coming from the kitchen.  He motions the hospice nurse close, whispers in her ear. "That smells like my favorite lemon poppyseed coffee cake. Please tell my wife that I could die happy if I had one last thin slice."

The nurse nods, then leaves the room.  Moments later, the man's wife enters the room, and the man repeats his request. The wife shakes her head.  "The lemon poppyseed coffee cake, that's for after."